Notes on Two Hundred Years (and More)
by Douglas H. Parkhurst
The Rev. Harry Adams Hersey began his pastorate at First Universalist Church, now Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury (UUCD), on March 1, 1930. He would turn sixty years old in April. By then a parish minister for almost a quarter century, Rev. Hersey was pursuing a second career much as some Unitarian Universalist clergy do today. Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1870 young Harry’s first occupation was as a piano tuner in and around Boston. While in his twenties Harry became active in the Young People’s Christian Union (YPCU) chapter at a Universalist church near his home. His interest in church activities and pursuing higher education blossomed. In 1899 he enrolled at Tufts College, Medford, Massachusetts, and in 1903 graduated with a bachelor of arts degree. Study at Tufts School of Religion followed where Harry earned his bachelor of divinity and master of arts degrees in 1906. That same year he married Lottie May Champlin, a fellow YPCUer from Hartford, Connecticut. The couple would have four children. In 1940 Rev. Hersey received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Tufts.
Ordained to the Universalist ministry in 1906, Rev. Hersey’s first church was in Stafford, Connecticut. Over the years he served parishes in West Somerville, Massachusetts; Caribou, Maine; Muncie, Indiana; and Canton, New York. For three years Harry Hersey did field work for the General Sunday School Association (Universalist). And, taking a break from the ministry, for two years he owned and operated a music store and did piano tuning in Canton, New York.
It is an understatement to say the 1930s and 40s were difficult decades for Americans. Unemployment, economic privation, and misery caused by the Great Depression preceded the uncertainty, danger, and sacrifice of the country’s full mobilization and participation in World War II. Then came the beginning of the nuclear age. These were years, too, which saw declines in the hatting industry and in farming, both mainstays of Danbury’s economy. It was within the context of these local, national, and international challenges, and their effects on his community, that Rev. Hersey ministered to the people of First Universalist Society and Church.
At eighteen years and six months First Universalist was Dr. Hersey’s longest settlement and remains today the longest of any minister in the history of UUCD. He was active in town, including service on the Danbury Board of Education, Rotary Club, Danbury Arts Center, Danbury Historical Museum (Scott-Fanton), Salvation Army advisory board, Danbury Grange, Danbury Ministerial Association, and local and state Council of Churches. He was easily recognized around town, too, riding a bicycle as he went about his parish and community business. For fourteen years Dr. Hersey was secretary of the Connecticut Universalist Convention. He wrote articles for magazines, a 50th anniversary history of the national YPCU (1939), and a book A History of Music in Tufts College 1856-1945 (1947). And all the while fulfilling his primary obligation as a full-time parish minister.
Harry Hersey retired, much admired in his church and community, on September 1, 1948, at the age of seventy-eight. In July he gave a final sermon to his Danbury congregation. He spoke on being a minister and a member in a modern free church. We are fortunate his words from that occasion are preserved. They offer a flavor of his broad faith and the liberal religious perspective of his time. He said this:
The minister in a free church “is free from the worst of all fears – the fear of the truth – the fear lest it differ from what he believed in religion. He is free to change his opinions; free to perform any service for any person; free from believing in the almost total failure of God in his declared purpose that all men shall be saved; free to judge God, as Jesus did, by human standards; free from authority. He does not have to obey any superior official; is not bound by a fixed creed. In fact the minister in a free modern church does not live behind an ‘iron curtain’ which shuts off one of the largest and most vital fields of human thinking.
“Similarly, the members of a free modern church are free; free to differ from the minister and from one another; free in matters of belief. They may have very conservative, or very liberal, views doctrinally, because no matter what their particular doctrinal belief, it is clear, in living and dealing with them, that such doctrinal differences make no difference in their character; and it was by a man’s ‘character’ that Jesus judged them. He rejected his professional followers, who did not do the will of God, and he accepted the unprofessing men who did that will. The tree (human life) was judged not by its professions but by its fruits. Finally, the members in such a church are free to think. No secret ecclesiastical police; no spying members of their own families will report them if they dare to think for themselves in religion as they do in all other spheres of human thought. Both minister and people avow their faith in ‘the authority of truth, known and to be known.’
“Therefore both minister and people choose to believe the best portrayals of God, in the Bible; the largest promises of Jesus; the most inclusive, instead of the exclusive teachings of the Book in the dignity and worth of man; in genuine universal Fatherhood of God and a real brotherhood of man; in the endless life of every human being. They believe absolutely that all the ends of the earth shall know the salvation of God, who has sworn by Himself; whose word has gone forth in righteousness and shall not return void, but shall accomplish that for which it was sent; till every knee shall bow and tongue confess to Him. The minister and people are free to believe that, despite all changes in human opinions of Jesus (and they have been and are many), that, Jesus Himself is the same yesterday, today and forever; God’s supreme revelation of Himself; the ‘Way’ in, through and out of life.”
Harry Adams Hersey died at his home in Somerville, Massachusetts, a few miles from his beloved Tufts College, on October 11, 1950, two years after he and Lottie left Danbury. He was eighty. His funeral was held two days later in Goddard Chapel at Tufts. Among participating clergy was Rabbi Jerome Malino of Danbury, a close friend. Walter Sweet, Danbury’s superintendent of schools, and Clifford Taylor of the Danbury Universalist church were honorary bearers.
[Note – There is much to learn about Dr. Hersey. Information with a photo and details of his ministry and activities in Danbury can be found in chapter 4 of The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Northern Fairfield County 1822-1995 by Reverdy Whitlock.]